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Navigating the Middle

Private school may serve sixth through eighth graders best

Investing in a private school education for your child may not seem to be a rational choice at first blush. Why should you pay thousands of dollars per year and tens of thousands over your child’s pre-college years for something you can get for free close to home?

There are many good reasons to invest in an independent school education for your child.

While the return on your investment in an independent school education is both short- and long-term, it is not strictly quantifiable in economic measures such as starting salaries or lifetime earning potential.

Much of the value of an independent school educational experience lies in its ability to build human capital in each student. It comes from school culture, from being known well by the teachers and administrators who run the school to the nurturing that comes from long-term relationships, high expectations and a more positive peer culture . All of these characteristics are much more readily achieved when the school is small, when all the teachers and administrators know all of the students and where all of the students know each other.

Our public schools have been designed to educate students most efficiently, using the least amount of resources to serve the greatest number. That’s why Hillsborough County middle schools average 1,000 students for just sixth, seventh and eighth grades (and that’s counting the smaller magnet and charter schools). Though the large school may be seen as more efficient, I would argue that the small school actually has more power and ability to produce better results, especially at the middle school level.

The early adolescent years, ages 11 through 14, are a time of enormous change. During these middle school years, all children reach developmental milestones, but they do so on their own individual schedules. Just as each child walks, talks and reads only when they are truly ready, so too does each child progress through puberty and gain the ability to handle abstract thought that will be necessary for later work. Further, the range of normal development during these years is wider than at any time since infancy.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that there are three developmental streams flowing in each child: the physical, which is easiest to see and note, the intellectual/cognitive and the social/emotional. The three developmental streams are indeed flowing in each child, but each flows independently, and at its own rate. This explains so much about the challenges and contrasts that are so common in the middle school years. Because the flow rates differ, it is not uncommon for a boy who is chronologically 13 to be intellectually 15 but physically 11. Similarly, a girl who is chronologically 14 may look 16 but have the social/emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. There is so much variation both between children and within each child during the challenging middle school years.

And that’s exactly why small middle schools are vital to the growth of each child. The better each child is known by the adults in the school community, the more in touch those adults will be with each child’s growth streams and the better those adults will be at meeting each child’s developmental needs. Ultimately, teachers and administrators armed with that knowledge will be the very best guides through the minefield in the middle.

Early adolescents need to know that they matter. There is little worse for teenagers than anonymity. The power to make a difference, to know that you are known and appreciated for who you are and who you are becoming are of paramount importance. Individual students simply matter more in schools that are small, and that’s a very healthy attribute in the middle years.

Another major reason to choose independent school in the middle years is that the influence of the family on the child’s attitudes, tastes, behaviors, and values begins to wane in favor of both the peer group and the media culture during early adolescence. Smaller, more manageable schools generally have a better chance at exercising influence over the peer culture, through a culture that places higher value on academic and personal achievement, through a sense of belonging and through the presence of more adult mentors and role models via a lower adult to student ratio. In the small school, the frequent contact with adults acts as a counter-weight to the negative influences of peers, media, and our challenging culture.

I believe there are hundreds, if not thousands of caring, outstanding teachers in our public school system today, but I’ve heard from many students that the teachers just don’t seem to have enough time and attention to go around so that each student gets a healthy share. In the middle school years, that’s an incredibly important factor. One parent recently shared with me her insight that her daughter who attends a public middle school had begun to submit to a kids vs. adults mentality that her daughter at an independent middle school didn’t have. The independent school daughter still saw adults as helpers and had a better sense of we’re all in this together.

The middle school years are an enormous challenge, even under the best of circumstances. Sensitivity to each student’s particular developmental progress is a true key to educational success with this age group and scale is a factor that should not be taken lightly. There is great power in the small school experience, especially in the middle school years.

Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PK3 through 12th grade independent school that serves students from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando counties. Visit for more information.

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